Chemical Engineering Assistant Professor spearheads equity and diversity initiative as IBET Ph.D. Project Director

Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Tizazu Mekonnen

The Indigenous & Black Engineering Technology (IBET) Ph.D. project was a groundbreaking initiative launched in January 2021 to address systemic inequalities and create increased access to higher education for Black and Indigenous students in Canada. The Project was initiated by Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering and co-developed with five other powerhouse engineering faculties (McMaster University, University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, University of Toronto, and Western University) and Waterloo’s Faculty of Math. It seeks to ensure that more Black and Indigenous people are able to take their deserved place in academia. The creation of the initiative was timely as many Canadians were moved and affected by repeated calls for the end of systemic racism in our country, and concrete moves toward equality, diversity, equity, and truth and reconciliation.

Fostering diversity and equity

This initiative aims to diversify the academic landscape of engineering and technology across Canada by providing Indigenous and Black Ph.D. candidates IBET Momentum Fellowships, a networking platform, and access to a robust mentorship program. These critical aspects of the initiative allow Indigenous and Black students to pursue research in both traditional and non-traditional areas. Acknowledging that Indigenous and Black candidates’ areas of research and accomplishments have not been adequately recognized, supported, or rewarded.

 Professor Tizazu Mekonnen was the inaugural director of the program and has now been named by the member universities, as the director for the next three years. Professor Mekonnen coordinates and leads the program's activities, including the expansion of the consortium member institutions. While the IBET Ph.D. Project began as a collaborative effort with five other Ontario universities, eight other engineering faculties from across Canada have joined the consortium, making it a truly pan-Canadian initiative.

Professor Mekonnen commented,

The rapid expansion of this initiative speaks for itself, as the need for this support has long been apparent.

His role also includes recruitment of candidates and liaising with, and recruiting mentors from both academic and industrial settings. The initiative is crucial as the current academic landscape is not reflective of Canadian society, by offering this support, the hope is to expand the diversity of the hiring pool available to faculties of engineering and technology. For racialized students, most of whom have never been taught by a Black or Indigenous teacher throughout their academic career, mentorship is crucial in creating an atmosphere in which academic and career success feels viable.

Professor Mekonnen reflected on his own experience,

Indigenous and Black scholars are few and far between within this environment. At the companies for which I have worked in the past and at the many conferences which I have attended, it is common to find that I am one of few (if not the sole) Black person.

Making a real difference in the lives of students

In terms of the real impact of the project, last year 17 Fellows were in the program with an estimated 25 more candidates for 2022 distributed across Canada. Momentum Fellowship award members report relief that the financial burden of graduate school will no longer be a barrier to their admission into academia. The comradery between the fellows, participation in a yearly conference, and cultural competency events are all factors that inherently change the academic experience of the recipient. At the University of Waterloo working to create diversity affords us the ability to create value, giving rise to new ventures, understanding, truth, and equity.